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California's huge storms still haven't ended the drought’s impacts

California's huge storms still haven't ended the drought’s impacts


Reservoirs are filling up, but a hidden drought continues deep underground

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California's Central Valley Heavily Impacted By Severe Drought
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Several feet of dirty brown water flows through the fields outside Andrew Lockman’s truck window as he surveys the damage from the recent storms. For Lockman, who’s the emergency services manager for Tulare county in California’s Central Valley, monitoring the flooding is an exercise in irony. The rain clouds overhead and mud under his tires remind him that while much of California is drenched in water, wells in his patch of the south Central Valley are still bone dry.

Does that mean that the drought is finally over?

Despite all the news about a series of near-biblical storms pummeling the state, California has been in the grips of a devastating, record-setting drought for the past five years. The snowpack had all but disappeared, more than a million acres of agricultural fields lay idle, and 66 million trees died. But in the last week, over a foot of rain has been reported at weather stations across the state, and reservoirs are reaching — even exceedinghistoric levels. Does that mean that the drought is finally over?

It depends on how you define drought, Jeanine Jones, the interstate resources manager for California’s Department of Water Resources, tells The Verge. If you’re looking at precipitation, plant health, and soil moisture, then yes — the drought looks to be over for the majority of the state, the National Drought Mitigation Center reports. But, Jones adds, “When you think about drought and impacts, it’s really at the local scale where you need to look.”

While some communities are now well-hydrated — or possibly over-hydrated — others are still struggling to find enough to drink. That’s because the surface water gushing through rivers and rushing into reservoirs is only one fraction of California’s water supply. The other main source is groundwater, which is the water stored in underground aquifers. Groundwater contributes between 40 and 60 percent of the state’s water supply, depending on how dry the year is. Some communities beyond the reach of city water utilities completely rely on water drawn from wells.

“Rain and snowfall are like income, and snow and water in our reservoirs and rivers are our checking account,” says Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But groundwater, Famiglietti says, is more like a retirement account: it’s what the state depends on when income inevitably dries out.

California is quickly tapping out this resource

Unfortunately, California is quickly tapping out this resource. In the Central Valley, which contributes around 8 percent of the food produced in the US, people have sucked so much water out of underground aquifers that in some places the land has dropped by nearly four feet. In Tulare county, as water available for irrigation slowed to a trickle, farmers drilled into the underground aquifers to pump water for their fields.

“So essentially, more straws were being added to the punchbowl, and the punchbowl wasn’t being refilled,” Lockman says. So the punchbowl went dry, along with the wells providing water to more than 1,500 households.

California reservoir levels February 22nd, 2017.
California reservoir levels February 22nd, 2017.
Graphs by CA DWR

Even families with working wells can’t always drink the water — chemicals from fertilizers and sewage concentrate in the remaining water as the well dries. That’s why more than 1,800 homes in Tulare county rely on deliveries of bottled drinking water, as well as nonpotable water dispensed into massive 5,000-gallon tanks. These deliveries cost the state $650,000 each month.

“That’s not a lasting solution, to have a water tank in your front yard. That’s expensive for the county and the state,” says Jenny Rempel, director of education for a nonprofit organization called Community Water Center, which is working with the state and the county to figure out a better plan. “I’m sure it’s frustrating to have people around the state saying the drought is over, and to still have a dry well and no lasting solution.”

For residents living close enough to the city of Porterville, a lasting solution is on the horizon. So far, 51 homes have been connected to Porterville’s municipal water system, and there are plans to connect another 800. But there are people living in more remote areas who aren’t close enough to be rescued by the city’s pipes, Lockman says.

“That’s not a lasting solution, to have a water tank in your front yard.”

Long-term, the state needs plans to manage its groundwater better. In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act into law. But water managers have until 2040 to implement more sustainable practices, including using the best available science to create a water budget and monitor water use. That won’t help people who have dry wells now.  

Neither will the recent storms, although efforts to pump or dribble stormwater runoff back into the aquifers may help. “It’s definitely going to take more than one wet year,” Laura Feinstein, a research scientist with the Pacific Institute, told The Verge. Probably, a lot more. “I don’t know if those wells are going to come back, period.”

Non-potable water tank.
Non-potable water tank.
Photo by Tulare County OES

Lockman worries that as the drought lets up, there will be less pressure to come up with permanent solutions for the residents of Tulare County who still rely on water deliveries and massive water tanks of undrinkable water in their front yard. “Now that it’s not in their face anymore, it’s kind of becoming a less glamorous, and less pressing issue as the drought fades away,” he says. “That’s a concern for us.”

The truth is, there’s a greater demand for water than California could ever supply, Feinstein says. Unless long-term water conservation measures are enacted, Californians will be feeling drought’s impacts for a long time. “We live in a perpetual state of not having as much water as people would like to have,” she says. “That isn’t resolved by any number of wet years.”